Lost and Found in the Field: Plein Art Poetry as Public Art
I was fortunate to participate as a poet in Voices in the Forest, a poetry-in-the-parks project conceived of and curated by Shoreline Public Art Coordinator Dr. David Francis for visitors to urban parks and forests throughout the City of Shoreline, Washington. Shoreline is located on the northern border of Seattle. The poetry also exists online as text and audio in multiple languages.
Writing has always been part of my creative practice. Many of my public art works have included my writing. Early in my career, when I was graduating from University of Michigan, I made books of poetry for distribution at my graduation exhibition of paintings titled with lines from the poems.
Voices was a rare opportunity for me to work exclusively with text. Longing for connection, as many of us were during the pandemic, I asked Public Art Coordinator Dr. David Francis if Studio Here Now, the public art design studio I run at the Michigan Technological University's Wadsworth Residence Hall, could host a reading and conversation among some of the poets.
Raùl Sanchez, Hop Nguyen, and I joined with Associate Professor Dr. Carlos M. Amador for an interview with David and a reading of poems seemingly about the same subject: a lone willow tree at the edge of a meadow that each writer examined from their unique perspective. Given the number of sites we could choose as points of inspiration for our poetry, it was interesting to find several of us were drawn to this particular tree. Our shared subject matter allowed us to compare and contrast our experiences, creative processes, and our resulting poems.
We began our conversation with a quote from a podcast I'd created for students in the course Art and Nature (FA2190), which combines mindfulness, contemplative photography, the study of aesthetics, and theories of well-being in relation to nature spaces.
“Each of us walks differently in the landscape, with a different history and subject position…and so our senses will call to the forefront…different elements than any other person who travels the same path…you can make images that no one else in the world can make…”
The panelists aimed to touch on questions central to the creative process, creating a bridge to the processes of students enrolled in Art and Nature.
See the full poetry as public art project here and listen to poems by multiple poets, translated into numerous languages:
Watch the webinar.
Co-sponsors of the project include:
National Endowment for the Arts, Washington State Arts Commission, City of Shoreline, Michigan Technological University Department of Visual and Performing Arts.
Here are versions of two of the five poems I contributed:
At the Edge of Evening
How quietly the night arrives in the pine forest
when the sky is still light
and the ground, without sun
is bound with half-buried roots
This last light, twilight
Could turn the darkness all the more thick and unknown
Turns the leaves into lace patterns
Turns the heart in on itself, if you let it
And so I sit on this log, long enough,
With eyes open enough
Until I can see
Poet's commentary: this poem was inspired by the activists who during summer 2020 risked their lives to see a leveling, or evening, of the ground on which humans find opportunities to dream and grow. The poem is an acknowledgement of the roots of social violence, which I hope are becoming more visible with each and every turn of the earth.
As I plant each footfall on the forest path, the presence of clouds blunts the sun, and my eyes
sense how every botanical absorbs life: the waxy leaves of madrones, the starry and prickly new
growth of blackberries, and the oh, so, slow and soft moss
And absorbed in my own thoughts, I continue on until I hear myself wonder aloud,
How the man tricked the elders,
Mobilized the angered,
And fueled us all with fear?
And shocked by this seepage, my own turning inside out
I run my palm over this log, your cracked surface, and through the carved
void where once there was wood, and now exists absentness
shaped like a human body
And noting your cleanly severed planes, I wonder, how were you felled?
With help of axe, chainsaw or wind?
Or was it simply the beetles and their collective work?
And as you tipped, did you anticipate how you would land and spend the part of your life that
begins once you have fallen?
Once you have been given over to the undeniable fact of gravity?
And from your place on the ground, once you have fallen,
will you come to see those who landed before you?
Poet's commentary: this poem is an acknowledgement of the support and wisdom trees, forests and their ecosystems offer. It is also an acknowledgement of the peoples who lived on this earth long before white settlers arrived on the shores of this land many of us know as North America and which is known by many names I am still learning.
Photos of poems in the field: David Francis. Poster design by Bethany Jones.